Quadroon, and the associated words quarteron, octoroon and quintroon are terms that, historically, were applied to define the ancestry of people of mixed-race, generally of African and Europeanancestry in the slave societies of the Americas, but also, within Australia, to those of Aboriginal and European ancestry. The societies incorporated the terms in law and government to define rights and restrictions. The use of such terminology is a characteristic of hypodescent, which is the practice within a society of assigning children of mixed unions to the ethnic group which is perceived by the dominant group as being subordinate. The racial designations refer specifically to the number of full-blooded African ancestors or equivalent, emphasizing the quantitative least, with quadroon signifying that a person has one-quarter black ancestry, etc.
The word "quadroon" was borrowed from the French quarteron, and Spanish cuarterón, which have their roots in the Latin quartus, meaning fourth. The word octoroon is derived from quadroon, and rooted in the Latin octo, which means eight.
Quadroon was used to designate a person of one-quarter African/Aboriginal ancestry, that is one biracial parent (African/Aboriginal and Caucasian) and one Caucasian parent; in other words, one African/Aboriginal grandparent and three Caucasian grandparents. In Latin America, which had a variety of terms for racial groups, some terms for quadroons were morisco or chino.
The term mulatto was used to designate a person who was biracial, with one black parent and one white parent. In some cases, it became a general term to refer to all persons of mixed race.
The term octoroon referred to a person with one-eighth African/Aboriginal ancestry; that is, someone with family heritage of one biracial grandparent; in other words, one African great-grandparent and seven European great-grandparents. As with the use of quadroon, this word was applied to a limited extent in Australia for those of one-eighth Aboriginal ancestry, as the government implemented assimilation policies. In Latin America, a term for octoroon is albino.
Terceron was a term synonymous with octoroon, derived from being three generations of descent from an African ancestor (great-grandparent). The term mustee was also used to refer to a person with one-eighth African ancestry, while mustefino refers to a person with one-sixteenth African ancestry. The terms "quintroon" or "hexadecaroon" were also used.
In Latin America, the terms griffe or sambo were sometimes used for an individual of three-quarters African heritage, or the child of a biracial parent and a fully black parent.
During the antebellum period, abolitionists featured mulattoes and other light-skinned former slaves in public lectures in the North, to arouse public sentiments against slavery by showing Northerners slaves who were visually indistinguishable from them, preventing them from putting the people in the category of "other".
In literature and pop culture
The figure of the "tragic octoroon" or "tragic mulatta" became a stock character of abolitionist literature in the antebellum era: a light-skinned woman raised as a white woman in her father's household, until his bankruptcy or death leaves her reduced to a menial position or even sold into slavery. In some cases, she may be unaware of her full ancestry before being reduced to victimization. The first character of this type was the heroine of Lydia Maria Child's The Quadroons. This character allowed abolitionists to reveal the sexual exploitation prevalent in slavery. Slaveholders liked to say that field slaves lived and worked under conditions better than (or no worse than) Northern laborers. But mixed-race children with white fathers in the South presented a different set of issues, as did the sexual abuse of slave women. The Northern mill owner did not sell his own children into slavery, but many white planters did nothing to free their mixed-race children from slavery.
In the period after the American Civil War, Southerners also began writing about people of mixed race, as a way to explore the many contradictions in a postwar society based on a binary division of race. The topic continues to be a means to explore race in society. Authors in the early 20th century were writing against a background of legal racial segregation and disfranchisement in the South; the successes of the civil rights movement have not solved all problems. Authors in the 21st century are writing historical novels set in the 19th century that explore racial permutations.
The Octoroon, a play by Dion Boucicault adapted from Reid's The Quadroon, was first performed at New York City’s Winter Garden on December 12, 1859. The play describes the suffering by Zoe, an octoroon who learns about her African ancestry, which disrupts her life plans.
"Désirée's Baby" (1893), a short story by Kate Chopin, features an apparently quadroon child born to two white parents; as the mother was adopted, the father assumes she has African ancestry and rejects her. He later burns a letter from his own mother; the reader learns that she was telling of her mixed-race ancestry.
Benjamin January/Janvier is a free man of color and the main character in Barbara Hambly's historical mystery series set in and around 1830s New Orleans; he is described as a griffe. Hambly's novels, published from 1997 to 2013, explores the city's complex caste system and the severe legal and social restrictions placed on people of color.
^Kottak, Conrad Phillip. "Chapter 11: Ethnicity and Race," Mirror for Humanity a Concise Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2009. 238. Print.
^ abcdCarter G. Woodson and Charles H. Wesley, The Story of the Negro Retold, (Wildside Press, LLC, 2008), p. 44: The mulatto was the offspring of a white and a black person; the sambo of a mulatto and a black. From the mulatto and a white came the quadroon and from the quadroon and a white the mustee. The child of a mustee and a white person was called the mustefino.